Boy Scouting Needs Witness of Faithful Catholics

COMMENTARY: A pack or troop sponsored by a faithful Catholic school or parish can adhere to Catholic teaching in all things.

(photo: Linda Parton /

The ideals and integrity of the Boy Scouts of America have been under attack for decades. Now, the BSA faces challenges from within, by those who seem fearful to defend the BSA’s core identity as a program for boys that prepares them to be virtuous men.

But that’s no reason (at least not yet) for Catholics to pull out.

In fact, quite the opposite.

Please understand: No one is more disappointed than I am with the changes and threatened changes to the BSA. I am an Eagle Scout who benefited enormously from scouting, and my memories of those times with my father — who was also my scoutmaster — are especially precious following his death 20 years ago. I have tried to follow in his footsteps as a scoutmaster for my four sons and a troop of remarkable boys.

What still works in today’s BSA is something called “Catholic scouting.” It’s not so different from traditional scouting, but with the protection of Catholic pro-family values that once were the social norm. A Cub Scout pack or Boy Scout troop that is sponsored by a faithful Catholic school or parish can adhere to Catholic teaching in all things. Scouts can pray and go to Mass together after campouts. Nothing beats a Rosary led by boys around the campfire!

Meanwhile, such packs and troops take seriously the scout’s oath to do his duty to God and country. They embrace the BSA’s outdoors program and develop boys’ leadership skills.

Such authentic boy scouting is still possible when Catholic troops, packs and charter sponsors have the courage to insist on it. By doing so, scouts and adult volunteers can be witnesses to truth in this secularist age.

It seems the moral integrity of nearly every social institution, even many of our Catholic institutions, has crumbled under pressure from a secularized culture. So we are right to be angry with BSA leaders when they bend to the same pressure. And yet, for the same reasons, we should be grateful to the BSA for preserving the opportunity for certain packs and troops to uphold traditional scouting.

If Catholic schools, parishes and parents still desire it, we can and should provide it.

We should do so for the sake of our boys, who are otherwise drowned in the undertow of an increasingly turbulent culture. What they gain from scouting — in which boys truly lead the program, aided by male role models and formed into capable and God-fearing citizens — is needed today more than ever.

And we should do it to be heroic witnesses to the role of faith and virtue even in social organizations like the Boy Scouts. Eventually, the BSA might prevent traditional scouting altogether, perhaps very soon. But our witness today will endure in the minds of our boys.


Duty to God

It’s true that the BSA has made membership policy changes that erode the distinctively male program, perhaps setting an irreversible course to its eventual collapse. Already today, these changes create moral conflicts for Catholic families who participate in packs and troops that may not adhere to traditional values regarding chastity and gender integrity.

Still, the compromises are not (yet) the end of boy scouting in packs and troops that have the benefit of Catholic standards. That’s why it’s disappointing when Catholics abandon the Boy Scouts prematurely, often believing outright falsehoods spread by the media and the rumor mill.

For instance, it isn’t true that Boy Scout troops are going coed. The BSA is developing a separate but similar program for older girls that hopefully will not succumb to the radical feminist influences in the Girl Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts will be for boys, but girls will be able to be Eagle Scouts.

In Cub Scouts, the BSA is permitting — even seemingly encouraging — packs to admit girls, but the smaller groups of dens must be segregated by sex. And packs still have the option to remain boys-only, which Catholic sponsors should insist upon.

Yielding to gender confusion, the national BSA won’t question a new member’s claim to be a particular sex — but each unit’s sponsor has the option of enforcing stricter rules for membership, i.e., determining sex at birth.

And the BSA now allows membership for boys claiming same-sex attraction — which is the policy followed by most Catholic youth programs. But a pack or troop can enforce the religious, moral and behavioral rules of its charter sponsor so that sexuality is never advocated, celebrated or even discussed within scouting activities.

None of these membership policy changes, of course, is good for the BSA. The organization should have defended the distinctively masculine nature of the Boy Scouts program envisioned by Lord Robert Baden-Powell more than a century ago. Questions remain about the BSA’s future practices regarding boys and girls at summer camp, female leaders replacing adult male role models, and changes to badge requirements. We shall see.


Catholic Scouting

Nevertheless, the current reality is that a Cub Scout pack or a Boy Scout troop — especially if held to Catholic values by a Catholic sponsor — can still provide authentic scouting for boys. In today’s world, those boys will greatly benefit from the lessons in self-reliance, leadership and service.

Before boys join a “Catholic scouting” troop, their parents should be asked to sign a religious policy statement to confirm that they are aware of the behavioral requirements and Catholic activities that are particular to the troop.

The boys should likewise be introduced to the concept of “Catholic scouting.” A good start is the question, “Did you realize that when you became a scout, you made a solemn pledge to strive for sainthood?” That’s what the Scout’s Pledge to do his “duty to God” means from the perspective of the Catholic faith.

Scouts should be regularly reminded of their pledge “to help other people at all times,” fulfilling Christ’s command to love others as he has loved us. The scout promises — before God and his fellow scouts — to keep himself “morally straight” and to “obey the Scout Law.” Each of the cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance — is reflected in the Scout Law.

At least for the moment, there’s nothing inconsistent with a troop being both Catholic and fully within the BSA. We should embrace the opportunity that we have today to witness to our faith, the truth about the human person, and the special value of a time-proven program that helps form virtuous men.

Patrick Reilly is an

Eagle Scout and a scoutmaster.